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Rosh Pina -The Cornerstone

Our travels this week take us to the picturesque little town of Rosh Pina, northeast of Safed on the slopes of Mount Canaan. One of the features of a visit to the town is the old Rothschild offices where you will be able to watch an audiovisual presentation of the town’s history.

Rosh Pina, established in 1878 as Gei Oni, was the first Jewish village to be established in almost 2,000 years, becoming a permanent settlement shortly after Petah Tikvah, which was the first of the moshavim. Rosh Pina was established by a group of religiously observant Jewish residents of the nearby town of Safed who were intent on establishing themselves as subsistence farmers, rather than being dependent on donations from abroad as was the custom at that time. The land on which they settled had been purchased a few years earlier by businessman Eliezer Rokach, a scion of the Jerusalem Rokach family and older brother of Shimon Rokach, one of the co-founders and a mayor of Tel Aviv. The Rokach family were great believers in a return to the soil for the Jewish settlers and a like-minded group from Safed moved onto the land to commence their farming activities. Unfortunately, they had very little in the way of agricultural skills and the venture soon failed despite having received assistance from a neighbouring Arab farming community.

Three years later the Hovevei Zion Movement, which had been established in Eastern Europe in 1881 with the purpose of encouraging Jews to make Aliyah and become farmers, sent Moshe David Iancovici to Palestine to procure a suitable tract of land. Iancovici purchased the Gei Oni land from Eliezer Rokach and the first group of Hovevei Zion pioneers arrived there in 1882 where they joined 3 of the original founders who had stubbornly remained to eke out an existence. Iancovici, who changed his name to Moshe David Shuv, as the leader of the new settlement renamed it, Rosh Pina, where the Hovevei Zion pioneers started their farming activities.

Rosh Pina was no different from several of the other newly established towns and villages and soon experienced grave financial difficulties which were solved with an injection of capital by Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, the saviour of many of the 1st Aliyah settlements in Palestine. De Rothschild installed a manager to run the village on proper business principles and built a shul for the residents which is still standing. He also established what became known as the Baron Rothschild Gardens, employing the services of a French landscape designer to create the gardens. Bougainvillea plants from France were planted in the Rothschild Garden, the origin of the magnificent Bougainvillea flowers which can be seen all over Israel during the warmer months.

Digressing somewhat, a short history of the global dispersion of Bougainvillea plants, which are native to South America. French botanist Philibert Commercon accompanied explorer Comte de Bougainville on a mission to circumnavigate the globe in 1766. Commercon was the first European to describe these plants, also taking seeds back to France with him. Comte de Bougainville, the 13th explorer to circumnavigate the globe is remembered for having given his name to these beautiful plants. Scientists at the Hadassah Medical School in Jerusalem have discovered that Bougainvillea is an effective deterrent to sand flies, shortening the lifespan of the insects after they have fed on the branches of the plant. Sandflies are also bloodsuckers and their bite on humans causes a condition known as Leishmaniasis which can result in an enlarged spleen as well as causing severe skin lesions.

Besides the shul built by de Rothschild, other old buildings have been preserved, making Rosh Pina a favoured tourist destination. A building known as The House of Dignitaries, built in 1882, became the administrative centre for Rosh Pina and its surroundings. In later years loudspeakers were fitted to the roof of the building from which news was broadcast on a daily basis. The Mer House was the residence of leading epidemiologist Professor Gideon Mer who was a valuable contributor in the fight to eradicate malaria, which was a major problem in the swamps prevalent in much of the Sharon Plane and areas to the north.

During 1920 Rosh Pina served as the base for Joseph Trumpeldor and his Hashomer group that had been dispatched to the area to provide security for the pioneer settler farmers. Trumpeldor was killed when he rushed to the defence of nearby Tel Hai after the village had been attacked by a group of Shiite Muslims from Jabal Amel in Southern Lebanon. The people of Jabal Amel claim it to be one of the oldest Shiite centres, second only to Medina in Saudi Arabia, where the sect originated.

Rosh Pina was home to Shlomo Ben-Yosef, a Polish-born member of the Betar inspired Irgun resistance movement. Ben-Yosef was found guilty by the British Mandate Authorities of being in possession of weapons following a failed revenge attack on an Arab bus. Ben-Yosef (born Shalom Tabachnik), together with two comrades, were controversially sentenced to death by hanging. Following his execution, he became one of the famous martyrs of the Irgun movement. A postage stamp bearing the image of Shlomo Ben-Yosef honouring his memory was issued by the Israel Postal Services in 1982.

Agronomist Aaron Aaronsohn rediscovered Wild Emmer wheat near Rosh Pina in the early part of the 20th century. Wild Emmer is the ancient wheat of the region, from which all modern strains of wheat were developed. Aaronsohn later became famous as the leader of the NILI spy ring which provided invaluable intelligence to General Edmund Allenby and his Expeditionary Force during their First World War battles against the Ottoman army and their German allies in Palestine. Aaronsohn, who was also an adviser to Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann, died in an aircraft accident in 1919 en route to the Paris Peace Conference where he was to act in an advisory capacity to Weizmann.

The Yiftach Brigade encamped at Rosh Pina - 1948

Prior to the end of the British Mandate over Palestine and Israel's Declaration of Independence on 14 May 1948, the British authorities handed various strategic assets and defensive positions to Arab irregular forces. One such strategic property was the Mount Canaan police fort adjacent to Rosh Pina. The Yiftach Brigade under the command of Colonel Moshe Kelman carried out Operation Yiftach which ended with the Upper Galilee under Israeli control as part of the greater Plan Dalet which I will discuss in a future post. The Rosh Pina police fort fell to the Yiftach Brigade prior to the Declaration of Independence, ensuring the security of Rosh Pina and the nearby city of Safed.

Rosh Pina is today a quiet village in a picturesque setting and well worth a visit.

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A fascinating article, I continue to be enriched by my learned and charming Israeli friend!

Three elements of particular note:

1. The origin of the Bougainvillea, I had no idea and by the gracious generosity of the author saw incredible Bougainvillea plants in numerous colours when in Israel.

2. The benefaction yet again of the Rothschild family, what incredible contributions they have made to Israel

3. The duplicity and even betrayal of the British at the time. Nothing for them to be proud of!

I look forward with anticipation and gratitude to the next read!

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